I don't remember the first time I ever watched "Austin City Limits" on PBS Television. It was probably in the early to mid eighties when Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson, or even Timbuk 3 were performing. I used to think that "public television" was either too boring or too educational(or both)---this show; however, is neither.
I grew up some sixty miles south of Studio 6A in a small town we'll call "Hill Valley". Live music in my hometown was limited to county cover bands who played an occasional pop or southern rock song. I remember seeing Alabama play one night at "The Corral" when they looked and sounded more like a biker band. Then I remember seeing George Strait in nearby New Braunfels at "The Crystal Chandelier". Neither of these two "clubs" currently exist---yet, who hasn't heard of Alabama and George Strait? I have never seen Garth Brooks live, even though both he and George Strait have played Austin City Limits. The Rolling Stones will probably never play ACL, they would never take the pay cut. Then again, that's what the show is all about, musical and artistic integrity.
Austin is an intriguing Texas city. It doesn't have the financial, corporate status of Dallas, and it lacks the big industry, blue collar pride of Houston. San Antonio has far more historical, Hispanic charm. Even though Austin is the state capital, it is far from being the conservative, cultural center of the state. It boasts high tech industry and a relatively liberal, white collar lifestyle. Yet, you can go thirty miles in any direction from the capitol building and be back in Bible Belt Bubba Land. Austin's biggest claim to fame is that it is supposedly the "live music capital of the world". That may be debatable; however, Austin's colorful history of great live music is not.
Austin has a tradition of venerable music clubs and festivals which no longer exist. The "Armadillo World Headquarters" is now a popular downtown restaurant. "Liberty Lunch" is now a parking lot. The "Freedom Fest"(once held at Zilker Park) and "Aquafest"(more recently held at Auditorium Shores) are mere memories. Finally, a new music festival is born celebrating a nationally known television show which quite accurately reflects the city's musical heritage. Fortunately for me, it was only a few miles from my apartment.
Rather than bore you with an in-depth review of each artist I saw, I'll try to be as concise as possible with each performance I observed. Saturday(September 28) the first group I saw was Asleep at the Wheel. Ray Benson, a Pennsylvania native, demonstrated his true love of traditional western swing with several Bob Wills covers as well as other western classics. Unfortunately, after their performance, I realized I had left my sunscreen at home. The hot, early afternoon, late September, central Texas sun would soon leave me with a painful sunburn. So, I left the grounds to drive back to my apartment to find my sunscreen. Upon arrival, I decided to throw a load of laundry in the washing machine and wait to put it in the dryer before heading back. I thought I'd take a short power nap in the meantime. That was about three thirty. The next thing I knew, my ringing cell phone woke me up---it was Becky Miller from Atlanta wondering where I was. Though temporarily incoherent, I soon realized it was five o'clock and the Jayhawks would take the stage at six.
I quickly regrouped and drove back to the show. Unfortunately, there were no parking spaces anywhere close to Zilker Park to be found. My third secret parking spot proved to be a charm, but I was still half a mile away. I did manage to make it to the Schlotzky's Heritage Stage just prior to the Jayhawks performance and met my friends just to the left of the soundboard. I have always enjoyed the close harmonies and Dylanesque style of the Jayhawks which was shunned by corporate radio during the Nirvana & Pearl Garden In Chains Sound of the early nineties. We wandered over to see Nickel Creek before returning to see Bob Schneider. He really got the crowd going with "Tarantula", an audience participation favorite. I decided to skip the String Cheese Incident and get a head start on the over 40,000 who had crowded Zilker Park for ACL's first day. The Food Court had run out of food, clearly the crowd was larger than expected!
Sunday(September 29) we arrived before noon, strategically setting up our portable canvas chairs in front of the soundboard at the H.E.B Feature Stage in anticipation of a long day of stage hopping. The first performer I decided to see was Jane Bond at the Austin Ventures Stage. She had been featured in the Austin Chronicle just a few weeks earlier. Her folksy, blues style was complemented by a multi-talented keyboard player who also played harmonica and trombone. A tongue in cheek version of "I'm Sorry 'Bout That" ended a well rounded, yet short presentation by the young artist. Then I went back to see Jack Ingram at the feature stage. His style reminded me of early Tom Petty with a touch of Dash Rip Rock. I enjoyed my first beer on a day when my wristband was upgraded to aVIP pass thanks to a local sponsor.
As the heat of the afternoon set in, a few of us drifted over to the Ventures Stage to see Tift Merritt. She currently resides in North Carolina and sure put on an energetic show. I skipped over to watch the Gourds for awhile and then caught an hour of Jimmy Vaughan. The sleeper of the day(in my opinion) was Cross Canadian Ragweed. This "alternative country" band was more of a cross between Reckless Kelly and the Georgia Satellites---a youthful, up tempo style tempered with a touch of classic southern rock. I would never label them as either country or alternative. The sun was beginning to set, and the Feature Stage was calling.
Ryan Adams---NOT Bryan Adams---was quite an exuberant performer. He reminded me of Michael Hutchense of INXS as he appeared to emulate Jim Morrison. They both closed their eyes and turned their backs on the audience while singing. If you decide to go see Ryan Adams in concert, do not heckle him by requesting Bryan Adams songs. He has been known to stop his show, find the heckler, ask him how much he paid for his ticket, offer an immediate cash refund, then insist the heckler get the heck out of his show---just a word of warning. The only other band I've seen as in your face with the audience as that is Cowboy Mouth---that's rock and roll! I must say that Ryan Adams cover of the Rolling Stones "Brown Sugar" was excruciatingly tight. Overall, a very spirited and powerful performance.
The Arc Angels closed the show in style. Lance Armstrong(four time winner of the Tour de France)---or "King Lance", as many Austinites affectionately call him---introduced the group. Two days of grueling, yet enjoyable entertainment had come to an end. I'm quite sure there will be more ACL Music Festivals in the coming years. There were a few minor problems, but nothing that cannot be corrected. It was not as big as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest---yet, I believe it has the potential to grow to a festival of such status. This is one event I hope can help keep Austin weird---with a touch of artistic integrity---in today's music industry, that's very weird!